The 49ers built their insurmountable 17-3 halftime lead on the strength of 145 yards rushing in the first half. But once the Browns made some halftime adjustments and figured out how to stop the run, the 49ers' only answer was a gimmick play.
When Cleveland shut down the 49ers' outside running game in the third quarter, the 49ers punted on five consecutive possessions Eleven of their first 18 plays of the second half resulted in no yardage or negative yards.
It may not have looked to sharp upon further review, but coach Jim Harbaugh was offering no apologies during his day-after news conference Monday.
"I disagree that it was ugly," Harbaugh said. "I still think it's a beautiful thing when you win a football game in the National Football League. They're so hard to do. I think everybody probably had that accountability going on, knowing it wasn't always clean. You kind of reflect on that first. But that was a good football team we played. No apologies for the way our team played. I think it was a great win for us and very proud of our guys."
Just the same, the 49ers' sudden futility after halftime could be traced directly to quarterback Alex Smith.
The Browns were giving Smith, and particularly Michael Crabtree, the deep pass and Smith couldn't hit him consistently.
Smith had Crabtree open four times and managed to hit him once for a 41-yard gain. Smith overthrew Crabtree on a few notable occasions when the receiver managed to get behind Cleveland defenders.
Smith also had trouble completing a pass that traveled over 10 yards in the air.
But he worked well hitting the short stuff, finishing with a passer rating of 98.8 after completing 15 of 24 throws for 177 yards and one TD passing. Smith is the NFL's ninth-ranked quarterback with a 95.7 passer rating.
But Smith was just 5 of 11 for 74 yards passing in the second half, with 31 of those yards coming on San Francisco's final drive of the game.
"I don't know if it was necessarily something they did," Smith said. "I thought we had some good matchups on the outside. We just didn't connect this week. When you play quarterback, though, you're just trying to win games. That's all I care about. I don't care about style points, how I'm doing it, as long as we're winning."
The 49ers finally put the Browns away on their sixth drive of the second half, but they had to do it through unconventional means.
The team converted a key first down when defensive tackle Isaac Sopoaga lined up as a fullback and then slipped out for a pass on a bootleg by Smith.
Smith needed a highly unconventional play in order to complete a pass and keep a second-half drive going, which doesn't project good things for the team down the line.
General manager Trent Baalke said before the game that his team doesn't necessarily need a prolific passing game to keep winning. However, there will be a time when the 49ers will need to play from behind.
The 49ers continue to use creative formations and personnel groups to gain crucial yards.
Not only did they throw a pass to Sopoaga for a critical first down during their game-clinching drive late in the fourth quarter, they also threw a pass to tackle Joe Staley, who lined up as a tight end, for 17 yards in the first half.
The 49ers also were able to get Smith on a few bootleg runs, and he finished with 22 yards rushing to climb to seventh in franchise history in career rushing yards by a quarterback.
Additionally, on Frank Gore's 3-yard scoring run, the 49ers put six offensive linemen in the game and put five of them on the right side of their formation. Then they pulled left guard Mike Iupati and easily overwhelmed the run side of the Browns' defense.
The coaching staff continues to scheme successful plays, particularly in the run game.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald strained his left hamstring in the second quarter and never returned. McDonald has been one of the team's stalwart defensive linemen and has often forced the opposition to double-team him on passing downs.
McDonald's status for Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins remains uncertain.
"We'll see," Harbaugh said Monday. "I haven't talked to Ray yet today, to find out where he's at. But we'll play that as we always do. He'll be working through it, and we'll find out where he's at after a couple days here."
Without McDonald, the 49ers went mainly at left end with Ricky Jean Francois, who's excellent against the run but is not nearly the same pass rushing threat.
Jean Francois' main job is to back up Sopoaga at nose tackle. If McDonald is sidelined, the 49ers might respond with Demarcus Dobbs on passing downs.
Dobbs, an undrafted rookie, was nearly unblockable in pass-rushing situations during the preseason but has mostly been inactive during the regular season. He got his first exposure in an NFL game against the Browns and didn't record a tackle.
--- FB Bruce Miller left the game with a right thumb injury and then returned with a splint. Miller said Monday morning that the thumb was fine, and he no longer was wearing the splint in the team's locker room.
--- CB Chris Culliver looked to have a leg injury at the end of the game. While the rest of the team left the field, Culliver stayed on the bench and was attended to by trainers. Culliver, however, was walking without a limp after the game, and he showed no signs of a limp in the locker room Monday morning.
--- TE Vernon Davis missed several plays after falling awkwardly on his right arm. He did return to the game however, and caught all three passes that came his way during the game. Davis remains the 49ers leading receiver with 27 receptions.
--- LB Ahmad Brooks busted his lip after sacking quarterback Colt McCoy on the second play of the game, when his helmet came flying off his head. Brooks returned and played the rest of the game, but would not allow any television interviews in the locker room. Brooks had another strong outing with two sacks to raise his season total to four, which is third on the team behind Justin Smith (4.5) and Aldon Smith (6.5).